At Southeast Side vigil for slain 10-year-old, frustration and tears

At Southeast Side vigil for slain 10-year-old, frustration and tears

The gathering for 10-year-old Gustavo Garcia started as vigils for slain children often do: with a prayer, a plea to "Our Father" for a spirit of unity, and hushed "Amens" from huddled mourners.

Two hundred people gathered in South Chicago for Gustavo and for their neighborhood Monday night, in the shadow of the Skyway and steel trestle bridges, a part of old Chicago where everyone’s uncle or brother or father worked in the mills.

Gustavo was shot to death here on East 97th Street late Friday. He, his stepfather and another man were in a car targeted with gunfire, and the boy died of wounds to his back at Comer Children’s Hospital that night.

The microphone and speakers at the vigil were powered by an extension cord run from a flower shop on the corner. Three balloons were tied to a light pole.

Adults spoke through tears, in English and Spanish. The Police Department organizes these events, called "Operation Wake Up," after a victim so undeserving of a violent end dies by gunfire. Most often they’re children, and most often the gunfire is meant for someone older, someone part of the gang conflicts that lead to shootings.

A man in a bandana and red shirt nodded from behind his iron fence as the 10th Ward alderman spoke. The man asked not to be identified because he felt fearful talking about gang members and calling the police on them.

"I don’t care if you live in Hegewisch or South Chicago, we’re all the 10th Ward," Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza said.

Neighbors gather with police for an Operation Wake Up rally on July 17, 2017, after the murder of 10-year-old Gustavo Garcia in the East Side neighborhood.

The neighbor nodded. "Sometimes when we call police we wait a half an hour" for them to show up, he said.

"We’re sick of this," Garza continued. "I’m angry and I’m sad. I can’t imagine this happening to my child and I’m begging you to take a stand. Some people say, ‘I saw it but I’m not going to say anything.’ That’s like saying it’s OK."

"We’re scared to report," the neighbor said. "Gangs, they’re very dangerous people. If you make a call, these people catch who does it."

"Let this be a turning point," Garza said. "Please."

In the minutes after Gustavo’s shooting, the boy’s stepfather continued driving north and turned onto 95th Street toward a bridge which, had he crossed and kept going for eight miles, would have brought him to Advocate Christ Medical Center. He happened on two police officers, guarding the scene of a fatal motorcycle crash, who ushered the boy into their squad car as the man who was with them grabbed his hair and dropped to the ground, screaming, "No. No. No."

"There’s a unit taking the … boy in our car, we’re taking him to the firetruck at the top of the hill," an officer said. "We have another gentleman at the bottom of the hill in the passenger seat. It looks like he’s shot multiple times."

The cops laid the boy in the back seat, and the squad car’s driver did a U-turn around the shot-up SUV, sprinting toward the fire engine. The ride saved only a few seconds, but with a child, the seconds could have counted. Police will extend themselves on a young victim’s behalf in a way they don’t often for adults.

The members of Engine 46 tended to the child on the street outside the squad car, lit by flashlights and incoming police cars.

Officers looked all over 95th Street east of the bridge for a crime scene, and found nothing. Police eventually found shell casings and broken glass near 97th and Avenue L, and that’s where the 200 people gathered Monday night.

The night Gustavo died made 31 years since Noel Sanchez became a police officer. He grew up not far from here, near 87th and Muskegon, and has been the commander of this district, which stretches between 75th and 138th streets, for almost two years.

"We are mad," Sanchez said Monday night. "I’m mad too. I’m — what happened here Friday night…"

"A 9-year-old," someone shouted at him, referring to what police originally thought was Gustavo’s age.

"You’re right. A 9-year-old. It’s callous. Cowardly. Horrific," Sanchez said. " … I’m tired of seeing the blood. I’m tired of seeing the kids. I’m tired of seeing bodies, and I’m tired of having to do these things, and you should be tired too."

He paused for a moment, then started speaking Spanish. The crowd’s response grew more vocal as he spoke.

"This is my neighborhood too. Este es mi communidad, este es mi communidad y esto me effecta mi tambien. It should affect you, it should affect everybody," he said.

"The whole district needs to hear us say: That should not have happened," Sanchez said. "Should not have happened. Shame on the person who did this, shame on them. And I hope they have trouble sleeping. I had trouble sleeping Friday. I couldn’t sleep."

"Tienen que hablar," he said, imploring the gathered crowd to share information with police. It’s a common appeal, and the police know it can be a dangerous ask. He told people they didn’t have to talk with him there, that they could meet in his office, or talk on the phone.

"Nobody has to know that you guys are talking to me," he said. "These monsters, these animals will get away with this. Someone has to pay for this poor child. Someone has to pay."

There was another prayer, as adults formed a circle around the children, spoken first in English and translated through a microphone.

After the "Amen," the crowd broke, exchanging hugs and handshakes with their neighbors.

Though this was among the largest of the "Operation Wake Up" events, its turnout was still disappointing to neighbors and residents and to Sanchez, all of whom said they wanted to see more people.

For a 10-year-old killed, they reasoned, 200 people didn’t seem like enough. The anger and tears from adults and bewilderment of children was palpable, but it didn’t seem enough.

Rosa Jimenez-Hernandez is in her 10th year teaching at Arnold Mireles Academy, blocks from where the district commander grew up, and where Gustavo finished fourth grade last month.

She grew up here too, a product of Chicago Public Schools and the Southeast Side. In the decade she’s taught at Mireles, the boy is the first student she can recall dying by gunfire. (The school itself is named for a gunshot victim, and other teachers remember kids dying in shootings after leaving Mireles for high school.)

Sanchez spoke to Jimenez-Hernandez and a couple of other teachers. He told them he was from the neighborhood — a phrase that conveys a shared experience, a familiarity and connection, with the people and problems here.

"Everyone’s troubled, we should be. But we gotta be strong for students, for the kids. At the end of the day, we don’t want to be the weak link in the chain. They’re going to look to us," he said. "Whatever you need, I’ve told your principal. Whatever you need."

"Well, he’s preaching to the choir," the fifth-grade literacy teacher later said. She would have had Gustavo in her class next year. "I can’t believe so few people were here. It’s unbelievable."

She left the gathering with a yearning for more — she wanted to see more come from this. "I don’t know what we can do about it. I don’t know."

Afterward and around the corner on 95th, where the paramedics had tended to Gustavo, one of his classmates put up a small note with electrical tape.

"RIP Tavo" was written in hearts by Martha Chacon, on behalf of the Gustavo’s grieving classmates. "Nunca te olvidaremos (We will never forget you) from classroom 307. We all miss you."

"He was so nice, he made people laugh," Martha said. The two grew up across the alley from each other and used to play outside. He was a fast kid, so she couldn’t catch him when they played tag. But they played soccer and basketball too. "I just miss him so much."

Students would sometimes make fun of Martha, and Gustavo would console her, stand up for her or tell her to ignore them, said her mother, Brenda.

The day they found out about Gustavo’s death, Martha asked to be pinched, convinced she was in a dream.

"She woke up the next day, and asked again," her mother said. "Just couldn’t believe it."

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